Catholics and Jews in Twentieth Century America

By Tentler, Leslie Woodcock | American Jewish History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Catholics and Jews in Twentieth Century America


Tentler, Leslie Woodcock, American Jewish History


By Egal Feldman. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. xiii + 323 pp.

Egal Feldman has taken a topic of enormous potential interest and produced a deeply disappointing book. This is partly because he knows very little about the history of American Catholicism. But the problem has more fundamentally to do with Feldman's firm conviction that knowledge of this sort is unnecessary, at least with regard to the history of Catholic-Jewish relations. One truth alone is sufficient: that American Catholics, like Catholics everywhere, suffered from "an incurable theological virus"--the virus of antisemitism (p. 8). Catholics, he asserts, were heirs to a "theology of contempt" (p. 13). Believing that the Church had displaced the Jews as the chosen people of God, American Catholics, like their European brethren, were condemned by the logic of their creed to resentment of Jews and indifference to their suffering.

This a priori approach to his topic has certain benefits for the author. He need not show how American Catholics actually behaved with regard to Jews--a project requiring far more extensive research than the author has undertaken. Despite its promising title, very little in the book addresses the American Catholic experience prior to the 1960s. Feldman supports his thesis by scattershot references to the antisemitic views of various Church Fathers, the persecution of Jews in medieval Europe, and pogroms in the Russian Pale. Where he does have reference to specifically American behavior, he is seldom troubled by interpretive doubt. The "incurable virus" explains everything. The American Catholic press, Feldman asserts at one point, failed to endorse a Jewish homeland in Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. (The author has apparently not read the relevant editorials; he cites only a single secondary source.) There were also many Jews who opposed a homeland, as Feldman readily acknowledges. But their motivation, in his view, was fundamentally different. Anti-Zionist Jews in the United States were prompted by a misguided "desire for acceptance in a Christian world" (p. 4). Catholic anti-Zionism "emanated from a theological resentment of Jews and Judaism, a theology of contempt" (p. 41).

Let me make my own interpretive biases clear. I do not doubt that most American Catholics prior to the 1960s--and a small minority since that time--were ignorant of Jewish tradition and at some level hostile to Judaism. But based on my own extensive research in American Catholic sources, I do not believe that anti-Judaism played a major role in the religious lives of most American Catholics. I have read more sermon books and manuscripts, more pamphlets, more seminary texts, and more editions of Catholic periodicals than I care to recall. Jews are a negligible presence in these sources. The typical Catholic prior to the 1960s is far more apt to have heard in a sermon that his own sins, especially the sexual ones, were crucifying Christ anew than he was to have heard that Jews were deicides. (The infamous Good Friday prayers, where this ugly charge once featured, were part of a liturgy avoided by all but the most devout, given its length and its tedium. Good Friday has never been a holy day of obligation.) Popular anti-Semitic tradition is of course another story. But notwithstanding this dangerous reality, Jews and Catholics coexisted in American cities for many decades. They were mutually suspicious and sometimes mutually antagonistic. Catholic youths were quite capable of violence towards Jews, as they were toward Afro-Americans or Catholics from ethnic backgrounds that differed from their own. But the real story, it seems to me, is the coexistence. …

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